When we do something wrong, there are two distinct emotions we commonly experience—guilt and shame. These emotions differ based on what we feel bad about. When we feel bad about the action we performed, then we experience guilt. When we feel bad about ourselves for having done something bad, then we experience shame.
How do these emotions influence future behavior?
An interesting paper in the March 2014 issue of Psychological Science by June Tangney, Jeffrey Stuewig, and Andres Martinez explored this question, studying nearly 500 people who had served time in prison for a felony conviction.
While still in prison, the subjects were given an assessment of their tendency to experience guilt and shame following bad behaviors. They were also given an assessment that examined whether they tended to blame circumstances for their actions or themselves. Blaming the circumstance is called externalizing blame, and is often associated with continued bad behavior—that is, people who do not accept their own responsibility for their actions are less likely to change in ways that will reduce bad behavior than those who do accept responsibility for their actions.
The participants were also contacted a year after being released from prison and asked to report whether they had been arrested during that year—and whether they had participated in crimes for which they were not arrested. (The researchers doublechecked arrest records in the FBI database.)
The researchers then looked for a statistical relationship between guilt, shame, the tendency to externalize blame, and the likelihood of continuing to commit crimes.
They found that guilt and shame had very different influences on future behavior. Guilt had a negative relationship with future crime—people with a strong tendency to experience guilt were less likely to commit additional crimes than those with a weak tendency to experience guilt.
Shame had a more complicated relationship to future behavior. Shame was positively related to people’s tendency to externalize blame—people who feel bad about themselves after performing a bad action will often try to blame the circumstance rather than themselves, in order to help them repair the damage to their self-esteem. Statistically, the more people externalized blame, they more they tended to continue to commit crimes after being released from prison.
However, once the researchers accounted for the influence of shame on externalizing blame, shame tended to decrease future bad behaviors.
What does this mean?
The problem with shame is that it causes people to feel bad about themselves. People who deal with shame by externalizing blame will not work to change their behavior.
However, if people experience shame without externalizing blame, then they will act more like people who feel guilty. Both shame and guilt are negative emotions, and people will work to find ways to avoid feeling bad. One good way to keep from experiencing guilt or shame is to change behavior.
This research also helps to demonstrate why the way we categorize the world is so important. People experience shame when they use bad actions they have performed to categorize themselves as bad people. People experience guilt when they think of themselves as people who happened to perform a bad action.
It feels easier to change your behavior when you are focused on changing an action than when you feel like you have to change who you are at your core.
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